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Land as a cornerstone of ethnic identity

Ethnic and Religious Conflicts in India
India is characterized by more ethnic and religious groups than most other countries of the world. Aside from the much noted 2000-odd castes, there are eight "major" religions, 15-odd languages spoken in various dialects in 22 states and nine union territories, and a substantial number of tribes and sects. Three ethnic or religious conflicts have stood out of late: two occurred in the states of "Assam and Punjab; another, the more widely known Hindu-Muslim conflict, continues to persist. The Assam problem is primarily ethnic, the Punjab problem is based on both religious and regional conflicts, while the HinduMuslim problem is predominantly religious. ETHNIC CONFLICT IN ASSAM Of the three conflicts mentioned, Assam has attracted the largest attention of late. Not since the 1947 partition of India have so many people been killed and uprooted as a result of ethnic or communal violence. By most available reports now, mob violence has claimed four thousand lives, rendered about 200,000 homeless, and forced a large number to leave the state for protection elsewhere. The immediate occasion of this bloodshed was the election held in February, though conflict and tension have been present for the last three years. In Assam, three culturally disparate groups have been in collision: the Assamese, the Bengalis (both of which have segments of Hindus and Muslims) and the tribals, which are localized communities. Historical Pattern of Migration Assam has had the highest rate of population growth in India since the beginning of this century. Migration into the state accounts for a substantial part of this growth. Most migrants came from Bengal, including what is now Bangladesh (known as East Bengal before the 1947 partition and East Pakistan from 1947-71). Bengali migrants were both Hindus and Muslims. Bengali Hindus started arriving after the British created tea plantations in the middle of the nineteenth century. Because of their educational advantage over Assamese, they were better suited to man the growing administrative and professional machinery. Bengali Muslims on the other hand, were mainly peasants. They originated predominantly in East Bengal, a highly populated area with low agricultural productivity and a fragmented landholding pattern incapable of supporting large families. In contrast, Assam was less populated, many areas were unsettled, and there was less pressure on the land. Bengali peasants made large tracts of waste, flooded and forested land habitable and productive along the southern bank of the Brahmaputra River, an area that is also populated by indigenous tribal groups, especially the Lalung. Overall Bengali dominance began to manifested itself in various ways. They held urban professions, their language was more developed and widely used in Assam, and their educational and even numerical superiority became more than evident. With the halting spread of education in the twentieth century, the Assamese middle class slowly emerged, and with the growth of the Assamese middle class, the seeds of what has been called "little nationalism" were sown in Assam. Post-Independence Developments After the partition of 1947 and the transfer of a very large Bengali Muslim district of Sylhet to East Pakistan, the Assamese middle class came to power for the first time in about a century. Through expanded educational programs and the use of Assamese as a language in the university, this newly acquired power, electorally buttressed, was used to consolidate the position of the Assamese middle class against Bengali dominance in administrative services and professions. On the other hand, the various tribes on the lower ranges were less developed than both of these contending communities. Depending on the preponderance of one or the other in their local context, they felt pressured, even exploited, culturally, economically and politically by both groups. Despite the existence of an international border, the migration from East Pakistan continued alongside migration from West Bengal. There is considerable dispute over the actual magnitude, but the most comprehensive estimate shows that between 1961 and 1971 the proportion of Assamese declined for the first time and that of Bengali speakers increased; between 1971 and 1981 itself, as many as 1.2 million migrants were added to a population of 14.6 million in 1971. Moreover, the number of registered voters increased dramatically from 6.5 million in 1972 to 8.7 million in 1979, a rise which cannot be totally attributed to the coming of voting age to the previously ineligible. This last discovery of the Election Commission was, in fact, the starting point of the present phase of the organized student movement supported by large sections of the Assamese middle class. The movement has wide-ranging demands including development of Assam and greater share of benefits from its rich national resources, including oil, for the Assamese. Why the issue of deportation of "illegal aliens" has come to be the focus of the movement needs some explanation. Despite the general anti-Bengali sentiment, the expulsion of migrants that came from West Bengal - these migrants are predominantly Hindus - could not be brought about legally or politically. Interstate movement and residence are perfectly legal in India, and the Assamese economy and society, despite the antagonism, is inextricably linked with West Bengal. On the other hand, the "post-1947 place of origin" of migrants from Bangladesh, largely Muslim, makes them "aliens" and their migration, for political purposes, can be called "illegal." The students thus found a ground for demanding their expulsion. Additionally, these Muslim migrants provided unstinted support to the Congress Party, now represented by Mrs. Gandhi, and the party in turn patronized them, so much so that local politicians of the Congress Party seem to have put aliens on the electoral rolls irrespective of whether or not they had Indian citizenship. It is in this atmosphere that the elections were called. Mrs. Gandhi has been heavily criticized in India for her decision to call the elections. Two considerations seem to have gone into her decision: her need for an electoral victory due to the reverses her party had suffered in recent state elections, and her intention to negotiate with a new set of elected leaders who would possibly be more pliable than students on the issue of "aliens."

while 1. who is also opposed to the Hindu trader. religion both divides and unites. two million hectares are dependent on tubewells. ruled. Religion and Green Revolution in Punjab According to the 1971 census. were granted by New Delhi this past February. the Janata Party. and the low caste Sikh laborer by dividing the agricultural labor into low caste Sikhs and low caste Hindus or Untouchables. 66. Unlike Assam. may later assume importance. have also become politicized by the leftist Agricultural Labor Union. there were massacres in which first pro-election Boro tribals attacked Assamese villages at Gohpur and later. Sikhs constituted 60. Both for buying modern inputs and selling surplus produce. in the last year in particular. land scarcity. It is the seat of the Green Revolution in India. Green revolution. has deeply linked trade with agriculture and made the latter dependent on the market. is in power in West Bengal and therefore is associated with Bengalis. drawn from the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. The land reformoriented agrarian program of the left and its attempt to create a base in the Muslim peasantry seems to have antagonized the Assamese landlords and wealthier peasantry. constituting 69. are the main sectors of urban economy in Punjab. Hold over government. Hindus formed the majority. the Communist Party Marxist (CPM). The major political demands are greater powers.6% Hindus. the Sikh's charter of demands. Assamese or Bengali. mounting communal tension between Hindus and Sikhs in the state of Punjab led to violent clashes. the ruling Congress and the Akali Dal. the Sikh majority was even greater. the anti-poll Lalung. Other developments have occurred. The landless. Punjab is a state with the highest per capita income. Electoral Politics and Religion It is unlikely that these links would have automatically led to political action without the mediation of political parties. It unites the Sikh trader. That Punjab has the best irrigated agriculture in the country is not enough for the rich peasant. another tribe. Power. whose biggest beneficiaries have been the rich Sikh peasants. and Hindu traders are dominant in both.5%. The territorial and the waters issues are the only unsettled points left. however. this incongruity did not much matter. Sikhs are a majority. mostly Untouchables and low caste Hindus and Sikhs. Religious slogans appeal to the religiosity of the insecure small Sikh peasant and the unpoliticized Sikh laborer. agitations were launched in support of the demands. among other things. and population influx have thus intensified the historical differences between Assamese and Bengali into violent ethnic antagonisms in Assam. Sikhs in urban trades are neither economically nor numerically as dominant as the Hindus. the rich Sikh farmer has to go through the urban market. Congress returned to power in 1980.4 million hectares in Punjab are canal-irrigated. including financial. the proportion of Sikhs in the Army has fallen from 35 percent to 20 percent. Other demands. Moreover. In the urban areas. reportedly with Assamese support. Hindus. tubewell irrigation. Due to its power and diesel needs. minor at present. So long as the economic pie kept increasing. a party dominated by the rich Sikh peasanty. rather than manufacturing. have contributed much towards this deepening. unlike in Assam where the issue of aliens has sidelined economic demands. All of this took place in a context of acute underdevelopment of Assam and slow economic growth. In addition to the predictable attacks on Bengalis in the towns. dominated by the Hindu trader. of the Assamese fear of becoming politically swamped by an ever larger Bengali presence in the state. did not take up any of its present demands with New Delhi where its partner in electoral alliance. bridges. and a separate legislative act for Sikh religious shrines. Since the exhaustion of the green revolution in Punjab. SIKH-HINDU CONFLICT IN PUNJAB Starting in August 1980. killed scores of Bengali Muslims in Nellie. Although religious symbols have been used for the mobilization of Sikhs and the secessionist slogan of Khalistan (a sovereign state of Sikhs) has been raised. In the villages.2% of Punjab's population and Hindus 37.3 percent in 1961 to 32. Scholars have noted the schizophrenic character of Punjab politics. Trade and services. Although they had their first relatively stable rule from 1977 to 1980. for the states vis-a-vis New Delhi. but when prices of food grain and other crops stopped increasing. The economic demands include a greater share of river waters for irrigation and larger central investment in the industrial sector of Punjab. The Akali elite. it deepened them. faced with Hindu traders on the one hand and politicized labor on the other. a minority. Irrigation problems have worsened the situation. known as jats. The spread of urban conflict to villages seems to be partly a result of the emergence of support for leftist parties in the previous elections. this is the first time that Akalis have not been in power. Landlessness has increased from 17. The most popular party of the left.4 % of the total rural population as opposed to 28. a clash of interests between the Sikh farmer and the Hindu trader was created. For the rich Sikh peasantry.1 percent in 1971 and more later. property. . In Punjab.Large-scale violence and destruction of lives. It has a "dual political system and a dual political area. Amid these mounting uncertainties. A commission has been appointed to review these demands. The agricultural sector is dominated by the Sikh cultivating castes. and various other resources resulted. attacking whichever community. The prosperity of the rich peasanty has thus slackened. but soon after the rival Congress returned." one secular and the other religious and confined to Sikhs. in possession of most of the land in their respective local situations. in the worst massacre witnessed in independent India. The "major" religious demands by the Sikhs. This mediation did not simply reflect the emerging socio-economic divisions. The power implications seem reasonably clear: unless the enhanced economic power of the rich Sikh peasantry is matched with political power. struggle for jobs. religion performs a useful role. The anti-aliens agitation is an expression. The agitation continues unabated. tribals seem to be involved in the struggle over land. when in power. has strong economic and political components. is "three to nine times more costly" (India Today). The two main rural parties.8 % Sikhs.4 % against 30. Classes. based as it was on biochemical and mechanical inputs in agriculture and surplus production for market. And finally. including greater radio time for religious broadcasts over federally controlled radio.

but in the seventies. Villages have remained largely undisturbed. both of which have complained of the gap between the resources they are entitled to and the resources they actually process. widespread use of Hindu mythologies and symbols in school textbooks and continuing controversy over the foremost educational institution of Muslims. should be exposed. First. Acute communal consciousness occurs largely in the middle class. Either political power should compensate for the halt in its economic prosperity. India's first Deputy Prime Minister. Decline in the status of Urdu in north India. Nehru's stature kept the communal strain in check. the problem has not been overcome. even the ruling Congress Party. Special educational privileges are constitutionally sanctioned but they ought to be worked on. Third. Hyderabad. and was more pronounced at the provincial level. even though a minority (according to the 1971 census. as opposed to religious. In a situation of mutual distrust. The ruling Congress has also played an electoral game. They were blamed for the division of the country. The higher recent incidence of Hindu-Muslim riots has a good deal to do with this new phenomenon. The emerging character of electoral politics have made matters worse. Evidence that the police and administrative machinery in recent riots have sided with violent Hindus has further deepened widespread feelings of discrimination. This is particularly important. Parties have not hesitated to fan communal flames for electoral gains. including the present messiah Sant Bhindranwale. Aware leadership . the party machinery has been taken over by the new generation of leaders. Their votes can swing political fortunes. the new leaders have shown its divisive potential. If Nehru showed the integrative potential of democratic politics. could allay the apprehensions of the Muslim community by better representing Muslims in the police and paramilitary forces. or unless the violence reaches explosive proportions. The government. Even 36 years after independence. The Muslim elite could do much in this respect. but particularly within the ruling party. Partisan communal leaders and communal electoral mobilization. Discrimination exists at other levels in other parts of the country. however. Most of all. three solutions seem plausible. for various reasons. had a dualistic character. The Congress is clearly not interested in settling the problem unless some political or electoral gains are likely.has to work for this political reconstruction. Many cultural differences exist among them. A Muslim sovereign state of Pakistan was born amidst ghastly communal violence but almost as many Muslims as there were in the new constituted Pakistan. In an effort to weaken Akali Dal. Ahmedabad. Hindi-Muslim riots have in fact increased in the last few years. its most fertile bases lie in the lower middle classes of growing middle size towns of sizeable Muslim populations. There are 39 districts in India in which they comprise from between 20 percent to 94 percent of the population. to conclude that the entire Muslim community in India has been under pressure. or greater economic incentives must return as expressed in the river waters issue. It would be wrong. First.2 percent of the Indian population was Muslim as opposed to 61. for its part. must make a sustained effort to reintroduce and deepen secular. supported rabidly communal factions. since independence. The secular strain in the Congress was represented by Nehru but the communal strain was also present in the form of Patel. THE HINDU-MUSLIM PROBLEM Of all the religious and ethnic issues in contemporary India. their leadership had left and their power was further weakened by the removal of all Muslim-majority areas except Kashmir. . socioeconomic concern in democratic politics.peace will be difficult to maintain in Punjab. This would partly address the problems in Punjab and Assam. for that alone can prevent the increasing differentiation in the Sikh community from fragmented and weak political expression. Moradabad.5 to 24 percent population in five states. Delhi. whose power and mobilization is based less on secularism or socio-economic programs and more on exploiting caste and religious divisions at the local levels. Communal Hindu parties apart. The most recent example of this was the openly communal campaigning by the Congress in the violence-torn Assam elections. has remained confined to the older parts of the city. Still. middle-size towns such as Aligarh. 11. in the SGPC elections. Modern liberal. Second. Most of these towns are modernizing. Only 45 percent speak Urdu and there are caste and sect divisions. in urban centers. has.2 percent caste Hindus). Baroda. the conflict between India and Pakistan kept the roots of the communal tension perpetually alive and pushed Muslims into the unfortunate situation of defending their loyalty to India. Ranchi. This new mode of realpolitik has been adopted by the new provincial and local leaders of most parties. the Aligarh University. stayed in India.political. The most critical contemporary phase of this history was the partition of 1947. further decentralization of power to states would be of considerable help. history has cast its deepest shadow on Hindu-Muslim relations. Religion is a particularly effective vehicle of political mobilization in such a situation. In the big and/or industrialized cities such as Bombay. almost any solution will generate controversy. Trivandrum. it caused the situation of the Muslims in India to deteriorate. Conclusion It is easier to outline these problems than suggest what should be done about them. education would be of great help. The partition did not solve the Hindu-Muslim problems. Muslims are the largest minority. have indeed done much to provoke Muslim fears. As many as 73 percent live in villages. after 1947 the Hindu-Muslim riots occurred for the most part. professedly secular. a conscious attempt needs to be made to improve the educational attainment and economic level is easily demonstrated of Muslims whose socio-economic backwardness is easily demonstrated. Interests of the Akali political elites have thus coincided with those of the discontented peasantry. the communal fury. it has. both within and outside the communal parties. Meerut. social and intellectual . whenever it has erupted. to the extent that they exist. only 27 percent are urban. in the recent past. Muslims are in a majority in one state and constitute 13. the secular leaders. Definitive resolution of problems may be inordinately difficult but substantial alleviation is not.